Incremental diplomatic approach with Iran is best policy
Calls for a "grand bargain" with Iran are unrealistic, assuming that we can resolve 30-years of anomosity through negotiations. An incremental approach, such as the current strategy of the nuclear deal, has more chance to succeed by focusing on a few key issues (ex. Iran's nuclear program) and using that as a basis to further relations and dialogue.
Khamenei's contempt for the United States, documented in three decades' worth of writings and speeches, has been remarkably consistent. Whether the topic is foreign policy, agriculture, or education, he seamlessly relates the subject to the cruelty, greed, and sinister plots of what he calls American "global arrogance." Former senior Iranian officials, including even a former president, have told me that in private discussions Khamenei has declared, "Ma doshmani ba Amrika ra lazem dareem," i.e., "We need enmity with the United States." A month before the tainted presidential election of June 2009, Khamenei declared that Iran would face a national "disaster" if a candidate who attempted to thaw relations with America came to power. While the "grand bargain" option garnered special attention during the George W. Bush years, when Washington shunned dialogue with Tehran, Obama's unprecedented and unreciprocated overtures to Tehran -- including two personal letters from the U.S. president to Khamenei -- undercut the narrative that Iran's hard-liners, despite their own rhetoric, secretly aspire to cordial relations with the United States. They don't. Indeed, underneath the ideological veneer, the anti-Americanism of Iran's hard-liners is driven in no small part by self-preservation. They are acutely aware of the argument made by many Iran analysts over the years that a rapprochement with the United States could spur unpredictable reforms that would significantly dilute their hold on power. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the powerful Guardian Council, put it plainly in a 2009 interview with Etemad newspaper: "If pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state."
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If Obama is to bring Iran to talks, he will have to overcome a good deal of resistance in Washington. “You saw the sanctions vote. What was it, four hundred and eight to eight in Congress?” Hamilton said. “Obama is confronted with a very strong, very committed, very heartfelt opposition to Iran in Congress.” This difficulty is compounded by frustration over the inability to find a diplomatic solution. Because America’s engagement with Iran has focussed on the single, intractable issue of nuclear arms, it has become difficult for the Administration to make perceptible progress. Obama has been more successful than Bush in orchestrating an international sanctions effort. But, after sanctions, what else can he do? Hamilton advocated a patient course of continued diplomacy. “There won’t be a parting of the skies overnight. The Iranians seem to feel the United States must go first, and make a dramatic gesture, but such a gesture by Obama is very difficult right now. . . . My feeling is that the talks must be conducted secretly, whoever does them or wherever they take place.”
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We have argued that the Obama administration can sidestep this problem by reframing the nuclear dispute as a long-term issue needing management rather than a near-term crisis needing resolution. The conditions of the JPA are more stable and more favorable to the United States than most analysts have recognized, and each interim agreement would contribute to building trust and giving Iran additional incentives to stand by its commitments. Such an approach could also be easier to sell politically at home, as a grand bargain must win domestic support for every element of a nuclear deal, whereas incremental agreements require support on a much narrower set of issues at any given time. Incremental deals are also less likely to become hot-button issues that dominate the headlines in the way that a grand bargain would. Finally, the longer a successful incremental process continued, the harder it would become for hardline opponents to advance alarmist claims or to threat-monger. As a result, setting its sights on building upon the JPA through a series of incrementally deeper agreements would enable the Obama administration to stand a greater chance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and winning domestic support for its course.
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To avoid this outcome, we suggest an alternative approach. The P5+1 should set aside the effort to craft an all-at-once comprehensive bargain and instead adopt a strategy of negotiating incremental agreements. An incremental approach has a number of advantages. The negotiators could focus on one sticking point at a time, without having to coordinate agreement on all of them at once. Negotiators could defer currently intractable issues, like enrichment capacity, until greater trust is built or new opportunities arise. Most importantly, the compromises already achieved under the JPA could be maintained and consolidated, independently of the ups and downs of ongoing negotiations. Critics would likely argue that such an approach only provides Iran with an opportunity to stall. We argue that, on the contrary, so long as the conditions of the JPA are in effect, Iran is unlikely to benefit from delay. If anyone benefits, it is the United States and its allies.
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A 'grand bargain' between the United States and Iran, under which the two countries settle the major differences between them, is even less likely. The barriers to reaching such a bargain are just too high to expect that a deal could be made in time to stop Iran's nuclear program. Many complicated issues separate the two sides, such as the questions of terrorism, Israel, and the tangled web of financial claims -- some still under dispute in a tribunal set up in The Hague by the 1981 Algiers Accord ending the Tehran embassy hostage crisis. Fur thermore, the two sides distrust each other profoundly, and each is so bitterly divided internally that reaching domestic consensus on an accord with the other -- an accord that will inevitably involve difficult concessions -- may require protracted discussions at home. Strikingly, longtime advocates of a more-active U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran who signed a 2004 Council on Foreign Relations report concluded that a grand bargain is 'not a realistic or achievable goal.'
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Ignoring this recent history, a July 2004 Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Task Force on Iran report suggested a grand nuclear bargain to the ruling clerics in Tehran. Under the CFR proposal,
Iran would be asked to commit to permanently ceasing all its enrichment and reprocessing activities, subject to international verification. In return, the international community would guarantee access to adequate nuclear fuel supplies, with assurances that all spent fuel would be returned to the country of origin, and to advanced power generation technology (whose export to Iran is currently restricted).
But Tehran's leaders have already rejected this approach; saying "pretty please" won't help. The Islamic Republic wants to retain these capabilities because it wants to use the "legend" of nuclear power to mask its break-out capabilities. Iran's negotiating record with the IAEA shows that the only nuclear bargain it finds of interest is one that runs out the clock, playing on the delusions of the willfully naïve and the appeasers until Iran has enriched enough uranium for a modest arsenal. France, Britain, and Germany have further encouraged Iran toward intransigence by allowing it to break the IAEA seals on centrifuge production equipment with impunity.
Kenneth Pollack argues that one of the key benefits of the pending nuclear deal with Iran will be the framework it provides for improving relations and trust between the U.S. and Iran.
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